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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

The toolbox, we all agreed, was actually pretty nice. Red, shiny and big enough to fit a hammer with room to spare on either side. When all this was over, we’d repurpose it. Living in a small two-bedroom apartment, it could become our version of a garage. But for now, it was a lockbox. It had a serious task. “Deadly serious,” we’d joke but then wondered if this was really the time for jokes. Inside, we stashed all objects that could cause potential harm: knives, of course, but also nail clippers and protractors. Protractors were the therapist’s reminder. We’d never have thought of it.

This was all new to my family and yet within a few days, it was routine. How that could happen – how we went from having knives freely accessible in drawers to everything being locked up to it all feeling normal – I had no idea. And yet, it had happened. Within days it was routine.

Not much else was.

Childhood, especially in our pocket of north Toronto, is unicorns and rainbows. It’s bouncy. It’s full of life and potential. It works its way to a future. It does not include safety plans. It doesn’t include an existential crisis at 10. But some of us need to make room for this as well.

While no one brought us a casserole, there was sympathy, of course. And a lot of, “You know what they say you are only as happy as your unhappiest child.”

Yes, that’s what they say.

But it’s not really true.

My youngest and unhappiest had depression, and I did not catch it. It isn’t contagious. I still smiled and joked. The depth of his despair and pain would never be mine. I would only have the stress and sadness of a sick child but not the experience of the sickness itself. I had to live in the gap of that. We all did.

A few weeks after the initial crisis, a social worker from our son’s school called. My husband picked up the phone and was instantly immersed in an intense conversation. When he hung up, he said:

“Well, she reminded me that this is hard on the parents, too.” He paused, “actually,” he began again, “I think she was telling me that divorce is likely.”

We looked at each other and laughed. “Well, that’s impossible. It’s too much work.” This was not what was going to break us. Of that, we were determined. But more problematically, this social worker from our son’s school wanted to get involved. I resisted this. How much experience, I wanted to know, would she have with suicidal 10 year olds? I feared that one wrong sentence from her, no matter the intention, would plunge him back into apathy or worse. In the principal’s office, I tried to sound rational but was crying within minutes. When I left, all I could think was that the principal probably thought, “Well, they say it runs in families.”

She’s right, of course, but what does it matter? A life is a life is a life. Happy lives are not worth more than unhappy ones. This seems obvious but actually needs to be learned. Learned over and over until every cell in our body is equally convinced. It takes some doing.

One unexpectedly hard thing was when someone asked me if I was okay. I would stumble because I was so far from “okay” that I couldn’t even form the word.

Slowly, I became attuned as to who to tell. Something guided me, “tell this person” it whispered and when I did, the gates would open. Stories of daughters, and fathers or sisters and spouses. Even sometimes of themselves.

“I had a period like that. When I look back at my presentations from that time, they are all black and white. Does your son draw?”

“Yes. Quite well, in fact.”

“Does he draw in colour?”


“Good, that’s important. When you see the colour fading, that’s your cue. Get him help.”

Others tell of sitting with their daughter in a high-school parking lot trying to get her to go in, only to have the daughter cry and cry. Many say that it does get better. “You acclimatize,” says one mom. These things feel like the truth, and from these conversations I always came away sure that somehow we would survive this.

Sometimes, though, that little voice telling me to tell someone got it wrong. Then I had to endure long conversations about how to solve the problem; one person told me that we simply needed to hug him more. I bit my tongue, and reminded myself that people only want to help.

And then there were the ones who just wanted to make sure that we hadn’t put him on any medication. These were the hardest conversations to extract myself from, for we had put him on meds. Without them, he cannot be himself. None of that matters to the no-meds camp.

Then there was the fact that, technically, nothing had happened. We were living in the shadow of an event that hadn’t taken place but whose energy and intention was all-consuming. As our youngest was tethered to this life by only the thinnest of existential threads, the rest of us worked to reinforce the strands. But with what?

All we could think of was – with joy. Well, joy and medication. But while medication one leaves to the experts, joy is domestic. Joy was all up to us.

One can’t, of course, conjure up joy. It has to be found.

We started growing an avocado plant from a seed. And it grew.

We went into the forest to hike and into the lake to paddle. And it healed.

We got a puppy. And it helped.

We reknit ourselves together. Slowly. It took months. Almost a full year, but there was progress.

Then one day, he asked, “Mom, what happened to me was that really bad? I mean was that dangerous?”

I paused, unsure of how to answer. The answer was obvious but I didn’t want to scare him. I paused and then started again. “What do you think?”

“Yes, I think it was.” His answer was instant. “I think it was really bad.”

“But, it’s better now?”

“Yes. It’s better but not 100 per cent.”

“I know,” I said, “But I want you to remember that you were brave and that you told us and that you got through it and now time has passed and things are better.”

“A little better.”

“And things got a little better.”


“Promise me you’ll remember that.”

KJ Ohlsson lives in Toronto.

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